It’s blessedly back to league action this weekend, and Arsenal head up to Manchester to face Jose Mourinho and Manchester United and hopefully come home with three points. I talked to Ryan Baldi over at SBN’s Manchester United blog The Busby Babe and got his impressions of how United’s season is going so far and what Arsenal have in front of them for Saturday. My answers to his questions can be found over on The Busby Babe.
TSF: United are sixth, eight points off the league. Is this the start to the season you expected, or was there a hope of hitting the ground running a little more?
TBB: Personally, whether misguided or not, I had high hopes for this season and, despite indifferent results so far, I still kind of do. I thought we'd be contesting the title and, although we haven't looked anything like worthy challengers yet, a run of three or so wins would put any upper mid-table side right up there at the moment. Things are tight at the top and there will be plenty of twists and turns to come. Chelsea had a poor start but look what a few back-to-back wins has done for them.
TSF: It's a little late to ask the "how did the summer shopping go" question, but I will ask this: has Paul Pogba been as advertised?
TBB: This is something I've spoke and written about quite a bit recently: despite constant reports to the contrary, Pogba has actualy been really good so far. In terms of chances created, goals scored, pass-completion and ball recovery, his stats are comparible with the best players in the league. And when you consider that he's been shifted between positions that don't best suit his game -- deep in a double pivot, as a number 10 and even a second striker against Liverpool -- he's doing rather well. In recent weeks we've also seen his leadership come for the fore, he was superb against Burnley and Swansea City and could be seen directing traffic and telling team-mates where to be, etc.
TSF: What has been Manchester United's biggest strength this season?
TBB: I think our creativity has improved. Last season, under Louis van Gaal, we were great at maintaining possession but had very little cutting edge and played at a pedestrian pace. There seems to be more of a creative spark within the side now, we just need to start taking more of the chances that are being created. In the 0-0 with Burnley last month, we had 37 shots, hit the post and the bar, and it was a similar story with the 1-1 against Stoke City. A bit more composure in front of goal would have seen us four points better off from those games alone.
TSF: United seem to be carrying a lot of injuries right now (also known as The Arsenal Way). Is the squad sufficiently deep to cope?
TBB: Our squad is deep in terms of numbers, but the quality isn't where it needs to be. We're short of a centre-back, right-back and defensive midfielder for my money. For whatever reason, José Mourinho doesn't seem to trust Matteo Darmian and Morgan Schneiderlin very much, so he'll probably look to replace them in the near future.
TSF: The Non-Snarky Mourinho Question: What sort of leash does he have there (from either management or fans)?
TBB: I think he divides opinion among United fans from what I gather from social media. From my understanding, though, most fans understand the mammoth task of righting the wrongs of the last three years that he has to deal with, and I believe he'll be given time.
TSF: The Snarky Mourinho Question: What's it like to have signed Year Three Mourinho instead of Year One Mourinho?
TBB: Ha! I must admit, some of the things he has said have worried me slightly. The public criticism of players is an aspect of Mourinho that I think we could do without right now, and his team selection has baffled me at times. If I could ask him to do one thing, it would be to play Pogba in his correct position (left of a midfield three) and let everyone else fit in around him. So far, Pogba has been shifted around to fit other, less talented players into the team. If you spend £89 million on a guy, you need to make the most of him. Also: free Mkhitaryan!
TSF: Fill in the blank: If Arsenal want to beat United this weekend, they must (blank)
TBB: Be fluid in attack. As you probably saw when we lost to Chelsea 4-0 last month, our defence struggles against clever offensive movement, Chris Smalling is good in one-on-one duels but lacks concentration, while Daley Blind is not a natural centre-back and gets caught out positionally. Eric Bailly has been a revelation at the back for us, but he's out injured. If Alexis Sanchez starts in the false 9 role that he has been playing in this season, his ability to drop deep and time late runs into the area could be a key to victory for Arsenal.
TSF: Finally, lineup and score predictions?
TBB: Well, the biggest question mark over our line-up is who will replace the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Here's my best guess at our XI: De Gea; Darmian, Smalling, Rojo, Blind; Carrick, Fellaini, Pogba; Mata, Rashford, Rooney. Personally, I'd rather see Anthony Martial start at centre-forward, but I think Wayne Rooney will get the nod (if he's sobered up in time).
And I'll go for a 2-1 home win.